Matters of moment, March 1972

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Opposite ends of the spectrum
Having accused Penthouse, which is sent to us each month presumably so that we can keep an eye on its ‘Wheels’ column (naturally, we look no further!), of sucking up to the British Motor Industry by praising the Morris Marina, we have been taken to task by their ‘Wheels’ columnist, although he pays Motor Sport the compliment of saying the accusation is “striking evidence of the august automotive circles” in which his comments are followed. He suggests that we did not understand him correctly—our “sucking up” remark was made after he had praised Marina, a car which hardly got off to a hot-foot start when it was first announced. Indeed, Marina took a long time to wind in a dragging anchor, but the ‘Wheels’ columnist says it is commercially plausible, while agreeing that the whole concept is old-fashioned. He continues to expound this theme, of the Marina being what he terms a “back-to-Methuselah design” and reminds me that he told British Leyland “it was a disgrace that they had to resort to such a reversion”.

This is followed by a slam at Sir Alec Issigonis, based on the assumption that cars are now just utility possessions, in which clever engineering has no place. Which is where we part company. The ‘Wheels’ writer avers that the sideways engine wasn’t original anyway, that the Mini’s front-wheel-drive was derived from Citroën, which they say Issigonis admits, and that these design factors, allied to Moulton Hydrolastic suspension, “didn’t add up to a profitable package”. How they can say this in the face of Mini sales and the continuing success of BL1100/1300s as Britain’s best-selling cars, we do not understand. The American bias that has always flavoured this ‘Wheels’ column peeps through when Citroën are said to have followed Cord with front-wheel-drive, suggesting Cord to have been the front-drive pioneer. What matters, surely, is not whether historians can show that Christie, Spyker and others pre-dated Issigonis, but that his Mini and 1100/1300 cars are selling in great numbers?

‘Wheels’ unwisely suggested that motoring correspondents are bored by the “sameness of their days”, which prompts them to hail as “advanced” any departure from the norm. Especially, adds ‘Wheels’, if this innovation enables them “to corner more comfortably at illegal speeds” (how many corners do you habitually take at 70+ m.p.h. in your cord or Mini?) or “drive faster in dangerous conditions”, which overlooks the fact that the more “advanced” the car the sooner dangerous situations recede. This pleading is about as fatuous as a recent discussion (in technicolour) during which it was suggested that as the last World War is now 27 years distant we must not be surprised that people resort as escapism, to throwing bombs in Ireland and elsewhere…

After which liberation of the pent-up, ‘Wheels’ swing back to Americana, saying it isn’t advanced engineering (which makes cars safer to drive fast) which sells them, but “universally usable engineering”, by which they mean automatic transmission (a very good one was developed for the Mini!), power steering and disc brakes. We arc told that Motor Sport regards automatic transmissions and power steering “with suspicion if not derision”, which isn’t true. Motor Sport’s Editor has merely said that as a personal thing he doesn’t want a two-pedal automobile until he has turned 60! We like, and have praised, good power steering, and, incidentally, the sense behind some aspects of American cars. But if disc brakes are regarded as “universally usable engineering”, why are they so infrequently used by the great automobile manufacturers of the USA?

The ‘Wheels’ columnist remarks that our “beloved ‘high-performance’ cars” are discarding the gear lever and going over to power steering—which we hadn’t exactly noticed, although we readily admit that a properly-contrived automatic transmission can accelerate a car as quickly in “D” as when using the “holds” (but not, usually, as quickly as the same car with a lighter, less porridge-stirring manual gearbox), and that Moss and Hawthorn expressed a preference for automatics in their road cars a long time back.

We think that this-non-motoring journal’s detailed criticism of the original Mini is valid, although whether it is correct to say that it and its bigger brothers “failed to make BMC’s fortune” is open to discussion. The Mini is compared to the Issigonis Morris Minor as a car “launched in 1948 and still selling in 1971, after fewer changes than the immortal Beetle, being miles more profitable to build”. This would make sense if it were not that Minor sales were falling off, when those of the Mini were climbing fast and are still a significant part of BL’s output, with “advanced engineering” figuring in something like half BL’s total car production. Motor Sport enthused over the Morris Minor (à la Issigonis, not the o.h.c. abortion) when it first appeared. The Issigonis Minor formula of a 14″ tyre under each corner, rack-and-pinion steering, supple torsion-bar i.f.s. of such ingenuity that America’s third largest car manufacturer and many European engineers were very quick to copy it, and a rigid body shell, paid dividends and perhaps if he had been allowed to put an “advanced” flat-four power unit under the bonnet the excellent Minor would have rendered the Mini unnecessary and have had an even longer production run than the 23 years our contemporary credits it with.

Where we beg to differ is when that journal says cars only sell well when they incorporate items which save their owners trouble, thinking of cars in terms of automatic versus twin-tub washing machines! A lot of Americans and some Europeans may regard cars as mere transport devices, devoid of personality, possessing no particular fun or status-symbol appeal. But a very big volume of business is done because cars have character, status appeal, or a fun factor. It will always be thus, until the State dictates the types we shall use, permitting two models, one for you, a better one for Government officials.

To dispose of five-speed gearboxes as “only enabling ‘keen drivers’ to have fun working harder”, and full instrumentation as “just drawing attention to how many things can, and probably will, go wrong, especially if it’s an overtuned ‘sports’ conversion”, could only be done by someone with a very utilitarian approach to motoring. To suggest that “a convenient starting point for Lord Stokes’ next generation of engineering” would be a hood that “pushes up or down without the need to set aside a meal break for the occasion on two-seaters like MG or even the Triumph Stag” makes more sense, except that we would place the need as greater for Stag then ‘B’ and ask how it could be done at the price at which these British cars sell? Need we add that Penthouse points out that such hoods, presumably expensively power-operated, have “existed on the North American Continent since before World War Two”?

What has all this got to do with Marina? Apparently Penthouse is so obsessed with the American way of motoring that it sees in this car a sign that BL is moving along the right lines; that if it were to give up “advanced” engineering it could cultivate conventional American-type autos. They say “You can’t run before you can walk, and God knows the trouble they have with walking in some of the BL factories”. Lord Stokes may have brought in Marina for these reasons and it would be interesting to have Sir Alec’s comments. Since his non-retirement Issigonis has been content to let his experimental engines blow off steam, instead of blowing off steam himself, as he was apt to do very ably in the past when his engineering principles had been criticised. It would be nice to hear some of his characteristic comments on American motoring in general and Marina in particular…

What comes clearly out of all this is that if, eventually, the motor-car comes to be regarded merely as a utilitarian, but unfortunately, necessary means merely of getting from here to there with as little trouble as possible (and not necessarily as safely as possible) pace a drum-braked, rear-drive, over-powered automobile against, for example, or disc-anchored, f.w.d. Cooper-Mini or Jensen FF, it will first be so in America, not in Europe. But this will be a long time hence, if ever. What Penthouse has conveniently shut its eyes to is that sports-cars, high-performance saloon cars, modified engines and, at last, greater cornering power and better brakes, are as acceptable in the USA as they are here. The soup-up trade alone is enormous business these days, which it wouldn’t be if cars were as uninspiring to own and operate as dish-washers or automatic washing machines, or if improved performance and increased safety factors did not interest a lot of drivers.

The thing which really amuses us is that here is a pornographic magazine telling us we are speeding up the wrong Motorway by regarding cars as fun, and advanced engineering to do with safer handling and control, instead of driver automation. Now, we all know that the purpose of woman is to wash men’s socks, feed us, and bring up our children. Penthouse exists to exploit the idea that woman can also be fun (to express it mildly and not to its any way condone the spread of pornography). Which is about the best example of the proverbial pot calling the kettle black that we have come across since Henry Ford reluctantly had to admit that the World was fed up with his all-black model-Ts…